Matt Damon, once again functioning in the dual role of scriptwriter and main actor, reengages with director Gus van Sant (previous joint ventures include "Gerry" and the Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting") in search of another fruitful cooperative endeavour . Based on a concept written by Dave Eggers and co-scripted by co-star John Krasinski, "Promised Land" is an extremely competent piece of story-telling, however laboured by a somewhat unconvincing fictionalisation of the matter at hand.
A touchy environmental issue has been presented in one of Gus van Sant's most down-to-earth and standard features to date, where the devilish fracking industry is the focus of a well-meant, if mishitting, effort. Steve Butler (Matt Damon) works as a consultant for the gas industry, roaming the countryside purchasing up land destined for exploitation by deep drilling. Together with the rigid Sue Thompson (Frances McDormand) they form an effective team, effortlessly buying up land in the idyllic small towns, strained by lack of cash, thus falling into financial despair. The gas shelves offer an option for easy cash - leasing the land and energy resources hidden deep in its bowels, thus bringing promise for better days. When Butler and Thompson are sent by their employer Global Crosspower Solutions to a cash-starved Pennsylvania farming community, the land seems ripe for the picking. Nonetheless the dark side of the industry slowly filters through, when the ecological soundness of the natural gas fracking process is brought into question by Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), a physics professor emeritus teaching at a local school. Troubles slowly start arising, coupled by the arrival of environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who initiates a grassroots campaign against fracking. The two soon start to compete for victory, not only amongst the community, but also with regards to the heart of small-town beauty Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Given the continuing discussion regarding the business, who on the outside wants to appear clean, whilst simultaneously sweeping all burning faucets, poisoned wells and dead livestock under the social radar, "Promised Land" could have been an important voice in the discussion, at least forcibly bringing the issue into the public eye. However the restraint shown in presenting the controversies behind fracking seem to be a missed opportunity, as the movie slowly drifts away from the core issue towards an order of melodrama and bickering between two sides of the debate. Not much however is done to present the controversy itself: Is fracking really a threat? Or are we just supposed to decide by ourselves through google after watching the movie? Naturally "Promised Land" isn't a documentary, hence the factual layer is nowhere as dedicated and impacting as in the groundbreaking "Gas Land". Nonetheless the lack of contextualisation is evident, offering too much space for any side to decide for themselves. Much focus is offered towards the question of whether the impoverished farm-owners should just take the money and renege their environmental fears. When someone's livelihood is at stake is it moral and right to ignore ecology? Somewhere amongst this nuanced approach to the issue, the question lingers: is there any reason to really fret regarding fracking or is this whole discussion just pointless? A well researched scene featuring Hal Halbrook would have done the movie a world of good...
Thankfully the script by Damon and Kosinski refrains from painting a cosy picture of right or wrong, presenting the local town life as a simple debate amongst immediate gratification and the perspectives of losses in the future. However the somewhat idyllic presentation of small town life causes the poignancy level of the question to drop, a far cry from the doom and gloom on offer in "Gas Land", the desperation lingering in people's eyes. Damon himself is well cast as a small-town boy fully dedicated to the company and the riches it offers, as a positive alternative. A far cry from a dastardly cooperative mug, his much more level-headed character is a welcome change, which avoids demonizing the people behind the problems. This occasionally helps to strengthen the rivalry for people's hearts, showing that the issue isn't an easy issue to resolve as either side would want to portray. Nonetheless this ambiguity also works against the movie, offering many points of view, but failing to truly show an in-depth focus on any, instead swaggering away into standard dramatic contrivances and a somewhat unwelcome twist at the end, which unravels much of the prior arguments, instead leaving focus on issues, which shouldn't really be the point of the movie. To some extent the characters and their tribulations override the integral story, somewhat collapsing the concept.